Sunday, May 5, 2019

I'm Burning For You

Cuvier's beaked whale in the Philippines
One of the most disturbing pictures/stories lately was the one about the dead Cuvier's beaked whale that washed up on a Philippines shoreline with more than 88 lbs. of plastic in its stomach. A few months earlier a sperm whale had washed up on an Indonesian beach with thousands of pieces of string and 12 lbs. of plastic in its stomach and then a month later a pregnant sperm whale washed up on an Italian beach with more than 48 lbs. of plastic in its stomach.

Sperm whale in Italy
Sperm whale in Indonesia
Every year more and more whales, dolphins, and other sea creatures are dying from ingesting plastic and other foreign substances that have made their way into the ocean. And, while the countries of Southeast Asia may be the world's worst plastic polluters in the ocean, North Americans can hardly claim to be squeaky clean. Our disposable, over packaged, lifestyle produces more than 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups alone each year, with Starbucks responsible for more than 4 billion of them. In Canada we also go through 3 billion plastic bags every year.

But it isn't Starbuck's fault we don't want to sit down and enjoy our coffee in a civilized fashion and drink out of a ceramic cup that can be washed, like we used to do in a restaurant or coffee shop, or at least have it served in a reusable travel mug if we have to be on the go. Starbucks offers both options but, for some twisted reason, we seem to prefer the one that adds to the landfill. And it's the municipal landfill that really exposes our hypocrisy and complete disregard for the environment.

Vancouver Landfill
Among OECD member countries, Canada ranks among the highest in municipal waste generated per capita at over 1,500 lbs. per person each year. Out of all that garbage less than 30% is recycled and we only recycle 10% of all the plastic we produce. Even the paper and plastic we did try to recycle by selling it to China has been halted with the ban on foreign trash China has implemented because recycled materials didn't meet the strict new regulations on contamination levels.

Plastic waiting to be delivered to China
Because China was taking in most of the world's garbage this ban has meant garbage is now piling up everywhere or being illegally diverted to other developing nations to deal with, neither of which is an effective long term strategy. The garbage is not just paper and plastics but also used electronic components and batteries (e-waste) which is toxic due to the lead, mercury, and cadmium it contains. Not only is e-waste a hazard to the people trying to salvage various components, it eventually seeps into the groundwater affecting both land and sea animals.

E-waste in Africa
But there's a solution to all this unwanted garbage and that's the EfW (Energy From Waste) technology that has been developed and used with spectacular results in a number of European countries, particularly Sweden.  Basically garbage is dumped into a high temperature furnace where it is burned to produce steam that is converted to electricity. The small amount of ash that remains can be recycled in road construction or put in the landfill, a fraction of what would have been dumped there otherwise.

Unlike a regular incinerator that spews ash and pollution into the atmosphere, this technology captures and filters all potential emissions so there is nothing harmful that enters the environment. In addition to producing energy the plant also recovers metals and aluminium that remain. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for every ton of municipal solid waste processed at an EfW facility one ton of greenhouse gas emissions are avoided so, this is also helping solve the global warming issue.

It's a renewable energy solution that solves some of our biggest problems and is so effective that Sweden is now importing garbage from other countries to fuel its EfW plants, making it the world's leader in municipal waste recovery. But, while countries like Sweden lead the way with new approaches to municipal waste, we continue trying to sort garbage that nobody wants and then truck it all over the country trying to persuade small towns and First Nations communities to let us dump it in their lap. We actually have one of these EfW facilities in Burnaby but Vancouver won't use it saying it discourages recycling, but does that really matter?

Covanta's EfW Facility in Burnaby
Fortunately Burnaby, New Westminster, and the North Shore think differently and every year 285,000 tons of municipal waste is converted into 170,000 MWh of electricity (enough to power 16,000 homes) and 9,000 tons of recycled metal is also recovered. Still, this is only 25% of metro Vancouver's waste and, if we had more of these plants throughout the Province, we could make up for a significant amount of hydro electricity. It's time to stop throwing our plastic and other trash into landfills and burn it instead, it's a lot better for the environment and the whales.

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